Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Le Conte's Sparrow

Le Conte's Sparrow
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

This past Saturday night I headed for Port Wing, Wisconsin, and first thing Sunday morning Photon and I took a walk down my mother-in-law’s driveway in search of a Le Conte’s Sparrow. They nest in the grassy meadow along her driveway, and my summer just doesn’t feel right until I’ve had at least one good look.

Even though I know Le Conte’s Sparrows are there, it’s virtually never easy to find them. Sam Robbins was one of Wisconsin’s real experts on them—he kept records and found that only 8 out of 86 singing males sat on perches exposed enough to provide an identifiable view. They don’t sing that persistently, and often stop singing for the day long before the sun has even come up. And their tiny insect-like song isn’t exactly easy to hear. On top of that, they hide in the grasses and can run on the ground to elude detection. One ornithologist described them as usually remaining “stubbornly in the field, creeping about like mice under mats of grass.”

So this is a secretive little bird. But finding one makes the search entirely worth the effort. Le Conte’s Sparrows are adorable—a golden buff face and black crown with a central white stripe, purplish speckling on the nape, and the spiky little tail feathers so much in vogue with grassland species. When I was first learning to take photos through my spotting scope, I got several lucky shots at a Le Conte’s Sparrow right from my mother-in-law’s driveway. The one I saw on Sunday allowed a few photos, but it was still too early to have good light and the bird didn’t get that close. That’s okay—the joy in getting a really lovely photo of Le Conte’s Sparrow wouldn’t be as lustrous if they were easier to come by.

This tiny sparrow has been among my very favorite birds since the first time I saw one on May 1, 1976, at Whitefish Point in Michigan. Russ and I were attending a Michigan Audubon field trip, and when I was wandering about on the beach, I came across one. I was a new birder and of course needed my field guide to identify it. When I went in and reported it to the rest of the group, a bird bander who worked there didn’t believe me, so I took him out and showed it to him. It was apparently one of the very first sightings they’d ever had of this species, so he put out his mist nets and had our group line up and move toward the bird to scare it into the net. After he pulled it out, while he was banding it and showing it to us, I was utterly taken with the little bird’s attitude. Here was this tiny mite being held against its will in the man’s enormous hand—yet the little sparrow didn’t look scared at all, but defiant. He reminded me of Ahab confronting Moby Dick. When I got home I looked up the weights of a Le Conte’s Sparrow, which averages 13 grams, and the weight of the largest sperm whale on record, about 150 tons. If Captain Ahab weighed 150 pounds, Moby Dick might have weighed 2,000 times what he did. But that same 150-pound man would weigh more than 5,000 times the weight of a Le Conte’s Sparrow, making the little bird’s feisty defiance even more impressive.

I was thrilled in 1977 to discover a Le Conte’s Sparrow in the meadow right in front of my in-law’s house in Port Wing. Since then, I find them there almost every time I search for them in spring or summer. But until I discovered my first one, I’d lived my life unaware that such a bird even existed. Now, every time I pass a grassy field I think about the golden treasures hiding right there, leading their full, rich lives undetected by the humans living all around them. We may or may not be the smartest animals on the planet, but we’re certainly among the most oblivious.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Loon Wars

Common Loon
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
A couple of weeks ago, when I was serving as one of the leaders for Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary’s first annual summer birding camp, we took a field trip to Crex Meadows, in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, where we came upon a group of five adult Common Loons. When people have told me over the years that they saw a flock of loons swimming together during spring or the early breeding season, I’ve told them the birds they’re seeing are much more likely to be mergansers, but this group was close and unmistakable.
Common Loon

When we first looked at them, they seemed to be getting along okay, but suddenly a couple of them started posturing aggressively, their heads lowered, muscular necks ready to strike. Then one reared up, its massive body rising out of the water as it charged, head lowered in striking position.
Common Loon

Water danced and splashed as wings and big webbed feet flapped. We didn’t see any actual contact, but we may have missed it in the mêlée. At least two of the birds were making the loud yodel calls that territorial male loons typically make at night. Finally, one bird started running on the water’s surface and flew away, and then a second did.
Common Loon

We had no idea which birds flew and which remained, and whether any of the birds were females. It was all a summer mystery.

Normally loons don’t leave the ocean or Gulf of Mexico to return to the north until they’re three to five years old, mature and aggressive enough to fight for a territory on a lake. There can be a lot of jousting for territory—now that they can color band individual loons and even follow some with radio tracking, we’re starting to realize that loons replace one another on lakes more often than people realized. It takes a lot of fish to maintain two adult loons while providing enough nutrition for their young over a long summer, so it’s imperative that they keep other loons off their territory. Loons once ranged as far south as Illinois, but development shrunk their range, and water quality isn’t good enough in even many lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where agricultural and lawn runoff fertilize the water. Excessive plant growth makes the water murkier, and water clarity is the most important feature loons need in the lakes they use.

This year the loons nesting in Eagle River, Wisconsin, abandoned their first nest when black flies got just too bad. All the rain contributed to changing water levels which would have been disastrous for loons nesting on the shorelines—properly constructed floating nest platforms rise and fall with the water level, so those nests probably succeeded. But it’s possible there was more than average nest failures first time around. Loons do renest if they lose their nest during May or early June, but the later it gets into the season, the less likely it is for an individual to be capable of breeding again. But as the loons at Crex Meadows showed, even after loons are no longer trying to breed, they still have a lot of hormones surging in their blood, making it hard to get along peacefully for any length of time. By August, they’ll be far calmer. That’s when many adults leave their still-flightless young and move off to larger lakes. By October, the adults can be in pretty large groups in some areas, most often on Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and especially Mille Lacs Lake. People witness fewer and fewer of these exciting territorial battles as summer wanes. This was the first time I’ve ever seen it, and I took a lot of photos. But I felt stressed wondering about the reasons these loons abandoned their breeding lakes in the first place. Rather than seeing five adult loons together, I’d much rather have been watching a distant pair of loons with two chicks.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Old Gray Mare, She Ain't What She Used to Be.

Golden-winged Warbler
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

I spent last week at Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary, in Sarona, Wisconsin, as part of a brand new birding camp. I’ve lived up here for 30 years now, but am sorry to admit I’d never visited the Audubon camp before. I had no clue that it was so exceptionally rich in habitats. I could stand in one spot, right in the parking lot, and hear Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Scarlet Tanagers, and Golden-winged Warblers.

Well, I could barely just hear those Golden-wings. I’ve been noticing in the past three years or so that I’m losing a bit of hearing in the higher ranges. I teach an elderhostel class every summer at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin, and Troy Walters, the young man who teaches it with me, now usually picks out the higher songs like Golden-crowned Kinglet and Blackburnian Warbler at closer range than I can. This year I did quite a bit of birding with my son Tom. It was disconcerting to realize that he could hear several birds that I simply could not pick out.

But when I was at Hunt Hill, I was hit full force with the realization that I don’t perceive some of the higher notes at all anymore. Storme Nelson, the Audubon camp director, asked me about a sound he was hearing, which sounded like a three-note lisp. It wasn’t for many minutes of hard listening that I realized it was Golden-winged Warblers. I wasn’t hearing the higher-pitched first note at all, and was missing enough of the higher tones in the triplet that those notes sounded entirely different in quality.

I took some consolation in reading the Golden-winged Warbler entry in the Birds of North America, where it says that the first note is often left out of songs by mid-season. But then I played a recording just to see how close I had to be to hear the song properly, and practically had to have the speaker at my ear to hear the first note.

The Golden-winged Warbler song is not as high as many others—the notes are below 10,000 kilohertz, while 20,000 kilohertz is considered the upper limits of human hearing. That means I may have been missing lots of other birds this year. There is a hearing aid called the Song Finder that lowers the frequencies of extremely high notes without amplifying them. I know several birders who swear by them. The Song Finder is only recommended for people who still hear well at mid-range. For example, if you can’t hear robins, it won’t help. All it does is lowers the frequency of the highest-pitches of birds, insects, and other sounds. That will make Golden-winged Warblers audible to me, but I’ll have to relearn their song—the pattern will remain the same, but the tone quality will sound completely different at a lower pitch. I’ve taken a lot of pride in my hearing, and a deep, rich pleasure in hearing these lovely sounds. So I’m grieving more than I expected for losing one of the auditory pleasures I’ve treasured for so long. I’m vastly consoled that once I drum up the $750 the Song Finder costs, I will again be able to identify all my favorite birds, even if they sound different.

Fortunately, a couple of Hunt Hill’s Golden-winged Warblers came out for me to see, and I’ve posted photos at

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Whimbrel in Duluth

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

This spring’s weather has disrupted a lot of birds. A woman in my own neighborhood called me this week to tell me that her chickadees had finally abandoned their nest and 7 eggs—she’d been incubating them for over a month before she finally gave up. There is a fairly good chance that one or two eggs in a clutch can be infertile, but for all the eggs to fail means there probably was an issue with the weather. The cold, late spring meant that male chickadees probably didn’t have an easy time searching out enough food for themselves and their mate, so the female probably had to spend too much time off the eggs for the embryos to develop.

After witnessing one of the biggest Fox Sparrow migrations ever, at least in my area, we had a surprisingly pitiful migration of White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, and bird song in my neighborhood has seemed subdued ever since the Fox Sparrows moved on. It’s hard to know whether large numbers of birds were killed in the storms and tornadoes this spring—some birds seem to be migrating still. There were still Red-throated Loons being seen along Park Point in Duluth the first week of June, and one Whimbrel was still hanging out at the ball fields in Park Point on June 14.

Whimbrels are larger than most songbirds, but smaller than crows and much more delicately built. They’re softly mottled and streaked, with very dark stripes running lengthwise along the crown. Their most conspicuous mark is the long bill, which curves downward. Their generic name, Numenius, is Greek for “new moon,” in reference to the curved bill.

The Duluth Whimbrel has been confusing a lot of people, particularly because it’s hanging out on the soccer field where it crosses paths with a lot of non-birders. When people look it up in their bird books, they’re even more puzzled because field guide range maps don’t show them migrating in the Great Lakes area. The vast bulk of Whimbrels migrate along the coasts, some making a nonstop Atlantic flight of up to 2,500 miles from southern Canada or New England to South America. But individuals do take an over-land route and we see Whimbrels in the western Lake Superior area every year during migration. Mid-June sightings aren’t so common. Unlike most shorebirds, Whimbrels are monogamous, both sexes sharing incubation duties and then brooding and feeding the chicks. The breeding season is very concentrated and short on their tundra breeding grounds, so it’s doubtful this poor straggler will make it up there to breed this year.

The reason this individual is sticking around will never be known, but we can speculate. Whimbrels winter along the Gulf of Mexico, where they are adept at catching and eating marine invertebrates, especially crabs. This bird may be suffering neurological or physical problems from eating contaminated food in the Gulf this winter, or it may have been disoriented by hitting a bad storm, or it may simply have been delayed by cold weather. Whatever brought it there, the bird is moseying about in the open for everyone to see, but he’s just not talking.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Duluth's Peregrine Falcons

Peregrine Falcon defending her nest
Rob McIntyre and "Amy" in 2006
(Transcript of For the Birds, June 14, 2011)

Usually I like to report bird news as quickly as possible, but this year there was so much sad news with regard to Duluth’s nesting Peregrine Falcons that I’ve had a hard time putting together my thoughts.

When a pair of Peregrine Falcons first nested on the Greysolon building in 2004, neither bird was banded. Without a unique leg band, there was no way to be certain that the same female or male nested year after year, but in 2006, the banders managed to catch the female and put a band on her leg, and named her Amy. Amy has raised chicks in that box with an unbanded male every year since. But this April suddenly a new female was in the nest. We’ll never know how old Amy was, but the new female was incubating four eggs. Two have not hatched—it’s possible Amy had laid them before being driven off by the new female, or it’s possible they were infertile or were laid during a bad cold spell—we’ll never know. But the other two chicks are hatched and seem to be doing well.

If it was sad losing Amy, there aren’t words to express my sorrow at another loss. The horrible tornado that ripped through Minneapolis in May killed two people, including Rob McIntyre, president of the Raptor Resource Project who was instrumental in bringing the peregrine falcon back to Minnesota and, in particular, putting up the box on the Greysolon building where our Peregrines have nested since 2004. I have some really nice photos of Rob from 2006 when he was climbing to the roof of the building to band the peregrines while Amy the mother Peregrine divebombed him several times, hitting his hardhat with her talons with a loud thwack. Rob was a really nice guy. His house was destroyed in the tornado, yet he brought his chainsaw next door to help a neighbor in need and collapsed from either a heart attack or stroke.

This year Bob Anderson and Amy Ries from the Raptor Resource Project came on June 13 to band the chicks—people familiar with the annual banding felt Rob’s absence acutely, because it had always been the three of them together. They put bands on the two chicks, which they verified are both females. The one sporting a band with the number 71 over a band with the letter W was named Waters, after Debbie Waters, the Education Director at Hawk Ridge. And Julie O’Connor, who is the familiar face in downtown Duluth in summer, teaching people about our nesting peregrines, called me this afternoon to tell me that the chick wearing a band with the number 70 over a band with the letter W was named Laura, after me! What an honor, to have a living, breathing Peregrine Falcon named for me!

Duluth’s Peregrine Watch is a very small-scale project operating on a shoestring yet providing valuable services for people who work or visit downtown, and for the Peregrines themselves. Julie O’Connor and volunteers are downtown every day, Tuesday through Saturday, from 10–2, with a spotting scope, a laptop showing the nest cam, and lots of enthusiasm and knowledge. They share information about the peregrines, getting people enthused about the birds that make our downtown more lively and exciting. When Peregrine chicks fledge, they often have a few crash landings before they get good. But now that so many people know about them, people know what to do and who to call if they spot a peregrine chick in trouble, improving the birds’ prospects.

This year the project is badly underfunded. In a time when the economy is so poor, a lot of people don’t have much discretionary income. But if you do have a bit, consider sending them a donation to keep this wonderful program going, and to give that chick named Laura a better chance for a long life.

Learn more about Peregrine Watch at their website. And join their facebook group!


(Transcript of For the Birds for June 13, 2011)

Every now and then, even after birding in this area for over 30 years, something unexpected and magical happens. On Memorial Day weekend, I had a perfect moment with an Ovenbird. I’ve treasured Ovenbirds since the moment I opened my first field guide to the page with this softly-colored, subtly beautiful little bird. I’d found a dead one in downtown Chicago when I was in high school, and didn’t have a clue what it was. But there it was in my field guide—and with the happy information that Ovenbirds were common in the Chicago area. I instantly became determined to see a life one.

I saw that lifer on an ornithology class field trip a few months later, and I was thrilled because I was the first one to see it. Now I’m pretty good at finding them, but it’s still tricky to find them most of the time, even though like just about all warblers with loud, easy-to-hear songs, Ovenbirds tend to sing from fairly low perches.

Ovenbirds are one of the more abundant forest birds in eastern North America. But they have very specific needs—studies show that they survive much better when their territory is in a forest interior rather than on an edge, and populations have declined with fragmentation, along power-line corridors, and where there is chronic industrial noise or seismic exploration. Ovenbirds are also one of the species killed most often at windows and lighted towers. One was killed at a window on my house back in the 80s, and Photon and I came upon one killed at a window in my apartment complex while I lived in Ithaca. Fortunately, I do see more living ones than dead ones. When I was in Guatemala a few years ago, I stayed at one lodge for four days. Every time I went past one little spot, I saw an Ovenbird quietly walking about on his winter territory. It was thrilling to realize that he’d flown the entire distance from somewhere in the eastern United States or Canada at least once, but it was also scary to think about all the hazards the endearing little guy was going to have to deal with to return.

My magical experience with an Ovenbird happened on Memorial Day weekend, when I strolled down the boardwalk at the Western Great Lakes Visitors Center in Ashland, Wisconsin. Suddenly an Ovenbird alighted on a branch just 8 or 10 feet away from me. I reflexively pulled up my camera but he didn’t seem the least afraid by the sudden movement. Even as I clicked the shutter, I was savoring the moment—I don’t think an Ovenbird has ever approached me before. I tend to be a romantic, but I don’t think birds could survive long if they inclined to romanticism. I have no idea why he came so close, and can’t even speculate. I took photos of him looking to the left, to the right, and directly at me. I don’t think I breathed during the entire 45 seconds or so that he was there. But as far as I could tell, he kept breathing just fine. Like I said, birds can’t afford to get swept away with emotion just because they’re close to a human—if anything, they need to be more on their guard than ever when a human is near. I’m afraid my species has given songbirds plenty of reasons to be wary.

I’m sure I’ll be hearing and maybe seeing plenty more Ovenbirds before the season is over. But now I have a vested interest in the well being of one particular one. I don’t think I’ll be able to drive past the Western Lake Superior Visitors Center ever again without thinking of him. And whenever I walk along the boardwalk, I know exactly who I’ll be looking for.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

BP Spill One Year Later

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
Oiled Heron

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the long-term effects of the Gulf Oil Spill. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 16 others. People were so focused on the human casualties that it didn’t seem to occur to anyone at first that oil was hemorrhaging from the ocean floor, but on April 22, a large oil slick began to spread where the rig had gone down. By July 15 when the well was finally capped, 4.9 million barrels of oil—that’s 205 million gallons—had gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, along with well over a million gallons of a chemical dispersant called Corexit, manufactured by Nalco, a corporation with close ties to BP. Military aircraft were employed to spray Corexit over the surface, and the EPA granted BP permission to inject it at the site of the leak, despite reports seriously questioning both its toxicity and effectiveness. Ultimately, nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant were released.

Oil from the natural beach at Grand Isle State Park, July 29, 2010

When I went to the Gulf in late July, reports on national news were saying that the oil had virtually all been cleaned up, and were touting how oil-eating microbes and chemical dispersants had done their job. The magical thinking necessary to believe that so much oil could simply vanish was beyond my own cognitive abilities, and with my own eyes I was seeing plenty of oil in Bataria Bay off Grand Isle, Louisiana, and Gulf Port, Mississippi, as well as badly oiled birds. In Louisiana, I took a tour of Barataria Bay by both boat and airplane. What I saw of the cleanup effort was pathetic and limited to public beaches. In the refuges closed to the general public, there was plenty of oil in and on the sand. In many places where boom was set out to protect fragile islands, no effort had been made to secure it, miles of boom had washed ashore, the fragile vegetation and boom all soaked in oil. Yet night after night I’d watch TV reports about how the oil was gone or rapidly disappearing. At the end of May, 2011, reports and videos taken by scientist Dana Wetzel of Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory show that the marshes of Barataria Bay still remain heavily choked in oil. Thousands of birds died in nesting colonies. The US Fish and Wildlife Service denied access to anyone, including wildlife rehab experts in oil spill response, to collect either carcasses or birds clinging to life that could have been rescued. Their numbers are not included in any of the official numbers of wildlife impacted by the spill. It’s impossible for democracy to even exist when people have no access to accurate information.

Oiled Great Egret

This year many birds seem to be missing in action, especially those species that migrate over the Gulf or winter in its waters, but the weather during migration was so volatile that we’ll never know whether the missing birds died due to the toxins in the Gulf or were killed by tornados, were simply blown to other destinations, or are just delayed because of our late spring. We do know that hundreds of baby dolphins were found dead this spring. And scientists who have been studying the Gulf met last week at a Florida Institute of Oceanography conference at the University of Central Florida. They found that the dispersant mixed with oil tends to be more toxic than oil alone to phytoplankton, conch, oysters, and shrimp—the exact opposite of what the oil companies have claimed. A study in January by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts indicated that Corexit applied at the well-head — some 800,000 gallons — did nothing to break up the oil and simply drifted into the ecosystem.

Horseshoe Crab walking on oily sand

When I show people the photos and videos I took in the Gulf and talk about recent findings, they all seem dismayed, yet people no longer get angry enough to want to do anything about it. When it comes to cleaning our air and water, we seem crippled by a sense of hopelessness. And that hopelessness is, to me, more frightening and sad than the damaged Gulf and dead wildlife. Without hope, we’re not going to be able to prevent similar and worse disasters in the future.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Take a hike!

Last Saturday, Russ and I took a bit of an interlude after a hectic week. My friend Andrew Slade, a superior naturalist in every way, just wrote a wonderful book, Hiking the North Shore, and was doing a book signing at Gooseberry Falls State Park, so Russ and I drove up there to get our copy of the book signed and see his program.
Andrew Slade, Author of Hiking the North Shore

Andrew's book claims to provide directions for taking "50 fabulous day hikes in Minnesota's spectacular Lake Superior region," and from what Russ and I could see, it lives up to that description. Since it was a beautiful day and we were already at Gooseberry Falls, we decided to try out one of the hikes, #17, the "Five Falls Loop." This was a 3.0 mile hike that brought us to all five waterfalls in the state park. I brought both cameras so we moseyed along, taking shots of the river and falls, wildflowers (there were still plenty of spring ones in bloom!), and birds.

Gooseberry Falls



Chestnut-sided Warbler in blooming Juneberry tree

Russ is really picky about books with maps and directions, and he found Andrew's book really useful. The hikes vary from very short ones to ones that would last all day for someone in really good shape--I'll have to work myself up for those!


Andrew isn't a serious birder, but he does have tips for finding some species, including the one most Minnesota birders think of when they think of the North Shore (well, those birders who think like me, anyway), the Black-throated Blue Warbler. I actually heard one when we started out on this hike! They don't really belong in Gooseberry Falls State Park, and the habitat where I heard this one was wrong, but I think quite a few birds were still migrating this weekend. The photo was taken near Eagle River, WI, during the last week of June, during the Elderhostel I taught.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

We had such a great time that we've decided we're going to aim to do all 50 hikes in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. We've lived in Minnesota for lo these 30 years, and we've both been to a lot of places along the shore, but we somehow never took the time to do any serious hiking. It's about time we started! I'll be keeping track of the birds we see on each jaunt, too.

Bird List for the day (not bad considering we started when it was almost noon):

Location: Gooseberry Falls State Park
Observation date: 6/4/11
Number of species: 36

Common Merganser - Mergus merganser 1
Ruffed Grouse - Bonasa umbellus 1
Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus 2
Turkey Vulture - Cathartes aura 2
Herring Gull - Larus argentatus 6
Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus 1
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) - Colaptes auratus [auratus Group] 1
Alder Flycatcher - Empidonax alnorum 3
Red-eyed Vireo - Vireo olivaceus 3
Blue Jay - Cyanocitta cristata 1
American Crow - Corvus brachyrhynchos 6
Common Raven - Corvus corax 3
Tree Swallow - Tachycineta bicolor 1
Black-capped Chickadee - Poecile atricapillus 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch - Sitta canadensis 5
Veery - Catharus fuscescens 4
American Robin - Turdus migratorius 2
Cedar Waxwing - Bombycilla cedrorum 4
Nashville Warbler - Oreothlypis ruficapilla 1
Chestnut-sided Warbler - Dendroica pensylvanica 5
Magnolia Warbler - Dendroica magnolia 2
Black-throated Blue Warbler - Dendroica caerulescens 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) - Dendroica coronata coronata 2
Black-throated Green Warbler - Dendroica virens 8
Blackburnian Warbler - Dendroica fusca 2
Pine Warbler - Dendroica pinus 1
Black-and-white Warbler - Mniotilta varia 1
American Redstart - Setophaga ruticilla 7
Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla 6
Mourning Warbler - Oporornis philadelphia 1
Canada Warbler - Wilsonia canadensis 1
Chipping Sparrow - Spizella passerina 2
Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia 2
White-throated Sparrow - Zonotrichia albicollis 5
Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus 1
American Goldfinch - Spinus tristis 2

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2(

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler
(Transcript of For the Birds program from May 26, 2010)

A treasured, lovely sparkle of animated color in the north woods is also one of the most rapidly declining warblers in the United States. The Golden-winged Warbler is an eye-catching bird, with bright golden yellow patches on the wings and crown contrasting beautifully with the bright white underside, soft gray back, and bold black throat and eye patch. Its soft, buzzy song is hard to hear but lovely in a quiet, subtle way.

Golden-winged Warblers are closely associated with second growth aspen forests, and so were once common in the Midwest. But for the past 40 years they’ve declined an average of 2.8% per year according to Breeding Bird Survey data, and that rate is accelerating. They’ve completely disappeared from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and are now restricted to a fraction of their former range in Wisconsin and Michigan. Minnesota has more remaining than any other state, but even here they’re now restricted to the central part of the state west of Duluth and Minneapolis. From1994–2003, in the US Fish and Wildlife Service Region 3, which contains Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, they’ve declined by 9 percent annually, and they’ve declined 11.3% annually in Ontario.

This kind of dramatic decline was exactly the kind of situation the Endangered Species Act was supposed to help reverse, but for decades it’s been virtually impossible for species to be listed so they can get this kind of federal help. The Golden-winged Warbler is considered a “species of management concern” in the United States, but this doesn’t give it anywhere near the level of protection that being listed as Endangered or Threatened would do. Why is this bird in so much trouble in the first place? Golden-wings have a fairly small wintering range in Central America, where deforestation and development exact a heavy toll. Individuals are killed on migration, especially at hazards such as lighted communications towers and tall buildings. And in more southern parts of their range, their close relative the Blue-winged Warbler has been out-competing them. But one of the main issues in the upper Midwest and Canada involves their breeding habitat. The secondary aspen forests they require are the first successional stage after natural disturbances and logging, but a great many of the areas they formerly nested in have been lost to development. When I did my annual US Fish and Wildlife Service Mourning Dove route this year, for the 25th straight year, I was dismayed to see yet more houses and businesses popping up in what had been forest and wetland. Development has been great news for Canada Geese, white-tailed deer, Wild Turkeys, and other species that have adapted to lawns and ornamental plants, but is not so good for species that require genuine wildness.

If Golden-winged Warblers are in serious decline, they’re still out there. I’ve been teaching an Elderhostel this week at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin. We went out to a spot we check every year, and found singing males exactly where we always do. It’s such a thrill to see them, and gratifying to help people get a good look at a bird they’d never seen before, but it’s also sad that this lovely little bird no longer can be found in the areas in Illinois and southern Wisconsin where some of these people live—areas where Golden-winged Warblers once thrived. One of the males was cooperative enough to give me some lovely photos. I think he’s the same male I photographed last summer in the same spot. I hope I’ll be able to find him and his successors in this lovely place for many, many years to come.

Lovely Interlude with Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler
(transcript of today's For the Birds)

On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I spent a few hours in the company of some exceptional birds—Kirtland’s Warblers. I saw my first Kirtland’s Warblers in a jackpine forest on June 6, 1976, when the species, the rarest songbird in North America, numbered about 200 pairs. Kirtland’s Warblers nest on the ground among the grasses beneath a jackpine tree. The tree has to be large enough to provide real shelter while young enough to still have its bottom branches. Jackpine cones open in nature only when exposed to the heat of a fire, and when humans started moving into north-central Michigan and started putting out forest fires, the jackpine stands grew older and less appropriate for Kirtland’s Warblers without new jackpine stands to take their place. The species numbers dropped dangerously, so Kirtland’s Warbler was one of the first to be named an endangered species and to receive major protection and help under the Endangered Species Act. But for over a decade, the numbers didn’t increase very much, and actually dropped to only 187 pairs in the late 1980s. It took several years of management by fire and planting to get enough jackpine seedlings old enough for Kirtland’s Warblers to nest. Now the landscape is managed via replanting rotations to ensure consistent habitat year after year and decade after decade, and the Michigan population reached 1733 pairs in 2010. In recent years, Kirtland’s Warblers have also started breeding in Wisconsin and Ontario. The Michigan population actually dropped from an all-time high in 1791 in 2008 and 1826 in 2009. People don’t seem very concerned about the drop in 2010, because many are hoping the population has stabilized and would be expected to have some ups and downs, but censuses this year and next should let us know if this is true.

This year, my morning with Kirtland’s Warblers started out at 7 am at the Ramada Inn in Grayling, where we met with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tour leader, sponsored by Michigan Audubon, and were shown a brief DVD presentation about the history of Kirtland’s Warbler management—a film I’ve seen several times now because I’ve been on this tour several times. We had a fairly large group—15 people and our tour leader. This size of a group is fairly intimidating to birds, but from the moment we stepped out of our cars on arriving in the right habitat, we could hear Kirtland’s Warblers singing. Their voices carry much further than most warbler songs, and by the time we’d gone 50 yards or so along a path through the jackpines, we could hear as many as five or six at a time.

Kirtland’s Warblers may nest on the ground under jackpines, but they sing from the branches of oak trees, which didn’t have many leaves yet, so it wasn’t hard to pick them out at a distance. The birds didn’t approach the path while our group was passing through, but after the tour, because our particular route wasn’t on one of the most vulnerable, protected areas, our tour leader said we could stay around if we did not step off the path and did not play recordings to lure the birds in.

Out of the 15 of us, I was the only one who stuck around—everyone had had satisfying views through spotting scopes, but I wanted more. So after everyone else had left, I returned to a spot on the path that seemed to be the border between two different territories. Sure enough, the neighboring males came close to the border on several occasions, allowing me to drink in their presence, watching the cool way they bob their tails, how they make a soft “chup” note while browsing for insects through the branches of jackpines, and respond to each other’s songs. I was in heaven. I stuck around until the 11:00 tour arrived, and then headed home, driving the long distance with a smile on my face and some fairly decent photos on my camera’s memory card. A morning spent with Kirtland’s Warblers is a happy morning indeed.